There are some new words and phrases used in everyday conversation that bother me. Some of them are primarily used by my teenage children, but I probably have a better chance of changing public perception of animal agriculture than I do of enforcing “appropriate” behaviour of my kids at this point. The catch phrases I’m referring to are things like “carbon footprint”, “ethical consumerism” and “sustainability”. In any other industry, it’s accepted – and even taught in universities – that improving efficiency uses less resources, cuts cost and minimizes waste, yet these principles are frowned on in food production. In 1800, each farm produced enough food for themselves and one other family. Fast forward 200 years and that same farm grows enough to feed 125 people. Even though that seems like amazing progress, consumers are increasingly asking for food grown using traditional, inefficient farming methods and calling that “sustainable”.
Hipsters and the urban elite believe that modern livestock farms are causing climate change and would like us to farm “sustainably” like our grandparents did. However, giving back the tremendous productivity gains we have made would, in reality, have a catastrophic environmental impact. Consider that in the 1940s US dairy farmers produced 53 billion kgs of milk from 25 million cows. Zoom ahead to the turn of the century and the output is now 84 billion kgs milk with only about 9 million cows! That’s a 400% increase in milk/cow! So, to make 1,000 kg of milk it now takes 5 X fewer cows, 4 X less feed, 10 X less land and 3 X less water! Same story at the other end of the cow: 4 X less manure, and the total carbon footprint to make 1,000 kg of milk is 3 X lower than it was 70 years ago! That sounds sustainable to me….
Even though the beef, pork and poultry industries have also seen similar improvements, consumers are of the belief that if something makes food “cheaper” it must be bad for the environment. Go to any grocery store today and you are bombarded with messaging that, if you are prepared to pay extra, you can make the environmentally responsible choice to buy organic, natural, hormone free… The list goes on and on. Most people believe that if something is “conventional” or “cheap” it must be at the expense of the environment, the animal or the quality of the food. Ironically, science shows that the environmental impact of food production is lowest when we use every modern technology available. This would be less significant if these technologies were used at the expense of animal welfare of food safety, but we know that both quality of life of farm animals and the safety of our food system have never been better!
The argument that local food is better for the environment seems reasonable and, in general, I am in favour of buying in my community. The reality is that, at least for meat products, only 5-10% of the carbon footprint is tied to transport. That means that a switch from “conventional” to “niche market” local food would have to be produced with no less than a 10% drop in efficiency to be carbon neutral. To be clear- I AM NOT SAYING DON’T BUY LOCAL. Just be careful to not be sold on the premise that, because it was grown in an “urban garden” in your neighborhood, that it is the environmentally responsible choice.
The challenge for the conventional livestock industry has shifted from supplying the needs of the growing global population to convincing consumers that we are good for the environment. Science shows that improved productivity reduces the carbon footprint per unit of food, yet we need to find ways to convince consumers, retailers, and the mainstream media. Attacking mainstream producers (feedlot beef or conventionally housed layers) in favor of niche markets furthers the idea that conventional production and mass food production are undesirable. In parts of the world where food is readily available, consumers have the luxury of making choices according to production system, but many parts of the world simply need nutritious food. It’s my hope that better consumer education demonstrating the continuing food crisis will shift consumers to make more science based food choices in the future.